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Patriots tighten up before the AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars

The importance of Saturday night’s performance as the team moves on.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to this game, there were a lot of jokes about how the New England Patriots had earned a double-bye week because of their divisional round match up. Local Boston Sports media legend Dan Shaughnessy made his thoughts clear about the Patriots' potential road to the Super Bowl.

Can you blame him for thinking this way? Personally speaking, this was the first time in my life that I wasn’t nervous for a Patriots playoff game. I was going to talk about how we should respect the Titans as they were fresh off of a Wildcard comeback over Kansas City, but then I remembered that it’s the Chiefs. I have said it many times: I will never fear an Alex Smith/Andy Reid-led team, and last week’s collapse was just another reason why.

Despite the Patriots’ potential unchallenging road towards another Lombardi trophy, there were some questions surrounding this team as it entered its first playoff game. Quarterback Tom Brady had not been playing at the same MVP level he had been at the beginning of the season. The defense, though improved, still struggled to consistently stop the run and generate any form of a pass rush. And the receiving corps, led by Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, struggled to create separation from defenders and help their 40-year-old quarterback.

While injuries to players like Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy may have played a role in the aforementioned issues, it was clear that the only rift that truly mattered these days in Foxboro was the rift between the team’s expectations and how they were actually playing.

But after smacking Tennessee around on Saturday night, the Patriots put any concerns about the present state of the team to bed. Whether or not you believe Seth Wickersham’s article, one thing was certain: that ESPN article served as motivation for a team that is already laser focused.

Those December struggles that plagued the MVP quarterback? How does 357 yards and three touchdowns sound to you? That suspect run defense? Why don’t you ask Derrick Henry and his 28 yards how he feels about the unit? Marcus Mariota had more yards on just four carries. Mariota also spent a lot of time familiarizing himself with that “inconsistent pass rush” I spoke of earlier as he was sacked eight times, a New England franchise record. And what about those receivers that were struggling to get open? The return of Playoff Danny Amendola helped to quell any rumblings about the group as he racked up 11 catches for 112 yards.

So while the whole world expected this outcome, the team’s performance was still important. Not because of Seth Wickersham and not because of some rift. It was important because as the Patriots head into their mind-blowing seventh consecutive AFC Championship, the problems that plagued the team against far less inferior teams like the Dolphins and the Bills needed to be worked out now before the competition ramps up.

Jacksonville is no Tennessee. Every level of that defense is superior to the Titans defense we saw on Saturday. Leonard Fournette is way more explosive than the lumbering Derrick Henry. And say what you want about Blake Bortles, but he has made multiple big plays in crucial moments during Jacksonville’s run to the AFC Championship game. But unlike Pittsburgh, the Patriots will not overlook Jacksonville, and they will show that when they take the field instead of talking about it this week in the media.